If the 1960s gave rise to the young maverick director, it was also the era that spotlighted the grand old masters of the art.
Talk shows, bookshelves and campus classrooms were enriched by legendary cinema pioneers who were magnanimous in sharing their knowledge and happy to be basking in the adulation of vibrant young minds.
In 1972 my friend, Michael Gould, and I had just graduated from the film program at York University, Toronto, where the school had hosted a number of such luminaries. When we decided to visit Los Angeles together, Michael arranged a number of interviews.
The L.A. summer was already very hot when we arrived, and Summitridge Drive, high in the Beverly Hills, seemed like a dusty path in some small town on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Fritz Lang’s house was small, but it evoked his famous Bauhaus mansion of his UFA days in Weimar, Germany.
Lang welcomed us warmly, smiling and extending both hands, one to each of us, in a gracious gesture full of old-world charm. Surprisingly, considering his reputation on the set, he was a pussycat—soft-spoken, thoughtful and very patient with his two young fans. He served us coffee and delicate cookies from a Viennese pastry shop. Lang had recently undergone a major operation and was recuperating at home. He was tired, but gave freely for several hours, generous with his thoughts and emotions in discussing everything from the art of film to the politics of the ’60s.
At that time, Garth Drabinsky was publishing a Canadian film magazine which was supposed to run these interviews, but the magazine went under. Some years later Michael sent the tapes to our professor, Jay Leyda, who had become Chair of Film Studies at New York University, and Leyda deposited the tapes there. It wasn’t until 20 years later that we decided to retrieve the tapes, and with great help from the NYU Film Studies Center and Archive (especially Ann Harris), the tapes were recovered.
After transcribing all 11,000 words of our conversation, we found the man and his views to be as fascinating today as on that hot day 30 years ago. What follows is an excerpt of that interview.
Lloyd Chesley (LC): Do you think of yourself as any single nationality?
Fritz Lang (FL): Not at all. I was born in Vienna, I was working a very long time in Germany, one of my best films I made in France, and then I was working here—so I became a kind of international mind. I don’t belong to anyone, and I don’t think that what I am or what I do is important. I think films are important and, generally, I am very much opposed to interviews because a film should speak for me.
LC: In your work in Germany, you dealt with fantasies and fairytale-like romances, but with M you made an abrupt
switch to realism.
FL: Not quite correct. I was born in Austria, yes? I became interested in the German human being. I wanted to make a film about the romantic German human being in Destiny; or the German after the First World War, with the Dr. Mabuse films; or the German of legend with Die Nibelungen; or the German of the future with Metropolis. And then I became a tiny bit tired, which had something to do with my private life, about which I don’t want to talk.
Michael Gould (MG): In Metropolis when Maria, the robot, dances for the men in formal attire, there seems to be a series of jump cuts. Were these in the original?
FL: Darling, no. There are no jump cuts. I’ll tell you what happened. People cut one film, two films, frames. I don’t know.
When I was in East Berlin they wanted to reconstruct Metropolis and I couldn’t help them because I don’t have a script. [Note: the current reconstruction retains these cuts.]
MG: Your German pictures were some of the most expensive films made at the time.
FL: There has been written a lot of lies about Metropolis. There were never thousands of extras. Never.
MG: What was the number?
FL: Two hundred and fifty, 300. It depends how you use a crowd. After the first World War there was an inflation, you know? In Die Nibelungen, I think I had 150 knights. The uniforms would have cost a fortune, but when it came to paying it was no more as if we would have paid one knight at the beginning of the film. It was the first time, I think, in history that a country had such inflation.
MG: Were you anxious to begin making sound films?
FL: No. When I made Woman in the Moon it was my own company, and the release was UFA. One of the higher echelon from UFA was in the United States and had heard sound on the first Jolson film. He came back and asked me to make
sound when the rocket starts. And for me, it was wrong. It was breaking the style of the film. So I said no. And UFA said “If you don’t do it, we break our contract; we don’t pay you anything!” I said ‘Okay, we’ll see.’ Then my lawyer said to me “Look, Fritz, you have to deliver everything which you promised.” I didn’t get paid for eight or nine months, and UFA hoped that I would finally collapse, but I didn’t.
MG: Your themes changed from epic to intimate when you began making sound films.
FL: I got tired from the big films. I didn’t want to make films anymore. I wanted to become a chemist. About this time an independent man—not of very good reputation—wanted me to make a film and I said ‘No, I don’t want to make films anymore.’ And he came and came and came, and finally I said ‘Look, I will make a film, but you will have nothing to say for it. You don’t know what it will be, you have no right to cut it, you only can give the money.’ He said “Fine, understood.” And so I made M.
We started to write the script and I talked with my wife, Thea von Harbou, and I said ‘What is the most insidious crime?’ We came to the fact of anonymous poison letters. And then one day I said I had another idea—long before this mass
murderer, [Peter] Kurten, in the Rhineland. And if I wouldn’t have the agreement for no one to tell me anything, I would never, never have made M. Nobody knew Peter Lorre.
LC: Do you prefer to participate in writing the script?
FL: I think, generally speaking, the scriptwriter, the script creator, unfortunately, is not judged correctly here in Hollywood. I think that is very wrong, and when I work with a writer I was always working hand in glove.
In Fury, there was a four-page outline. This outline was only one thing that interested me. It was also that one could make a film about lynching. But the outline itself put the emphasis on something else. So, when I found this in the chests of MGM, Bartlett McCormack, a very good writer, and I talked about what I wanted to do. I said we can make a picture about lynching in the United States. I collected all the newspapers I could get and we cut out all the reports about lynchings and we started to work together.
LC: Fury is a great film for the American audience.
FL: Our first hero was a lawyer. The supervising producer called us and said “No, children, that is wrong.” And we said ‘Why?’ Because we felt if we make the hero a lawyer, he can talk more. And this man said “No, it must be somebody with whom the audience can identify—a Joe Doe.” That was the first direction I got about American audiences. We were to rewrite the whole first two sequences for a gas station attendant.
In German films, we would always see the hero in most of the films was a superhuman being—without the kind of trunks you usually put onto Superman! In America it should be the average citizen so that the audience can identify with this man or woman, right? I remember when Die Nibelungen was shown here, in Pasadena. The audience didn’t understand it. They had no fun with it because they had no relationship to the legend. The only legend which, in my opinion, the American knows are the westerns.
So, when I got the offer to make Western Union, I had to not make a film of reality. I had to make a film which was in reality a legend. And it was something very peculiar. After I made the film I got a letter from some old-timers and they wrote and said “Dear Mr. Lang: We just saw Western Union and liked it very much. We have never seen a film that shows the west as it really was, except Western Union.” Which wasn’t true, but it was the west they dreamed about—the past they wanted.
LC: So do you feel you must approach each specific audience differently?
FL: The creative process is something very peculiar. I like audiences. There is a saying that an audience is stupid; it has
the mind of a 13-year old girl. I never believed this. I try to put something in each film which people could discuss at home,
something that was not only pure entertainment.
I have nothing against entertainment films. I think if you are a worker you should still eat something. I think so, no? If he gets something which entertains him and there is something which makes him think about some social things which are not quite correct, then he can talk it over, let’s say with his wife, right? He says “Look, what was this?” And she says “No, that was not quite as you said it was.” Then he says “He said something different? Let’s see it a second time.” And they go and then I not only have two people who want to see the film once—I have two people who want to see the film twice.
LC: Do you worry if the film makes money?
FL: Look, the studios are responsible for the money and they want to know how many people were in the theater. They want to know if they get their money back. I go to the theater, too, and I want to know how many people have seen the film. But I am not interested in the money; I am only interested how many people I reach with my ideas.
MG: Do you storyboard each shot?
FL: Yeah. Each close-up. When I go and start to shoot, I know exactly what I want to do. I work at night at my desk and I know the set; I have the floor plan. I make a rehearsal; I go with my actors through every single shot and my cameraman knows this.
And then we shoot everything in one direction and then we throw the lights around and shoot in the other direction. It can save money, not to make a film cheaper, but so I can use this money in another way. I am not one of those directors (and I am not saying that these directors are wrong), who see things in the studio and start to change his mind when he sees the set.
MG: Do you prefer studio or location shooting?
FL: I definitely prefer studio.
FL: Simple. I make a shot of you, huh? And five hours later I want to make a close-up of you with the same lighting. But
when I make it outside the sun is in the morning there, and five hours later it’s there, so I cannot make the shot anymore because it’s different light. You understand?
MG: Yes. Is location shooting a bad trend?
FL: There are many trends which I personally don’t like, but this is something else. I don’t see any necessity. For example,
on M, everything was made in the studio.
MG: The scene in Man Hunt, where he gets off the boat in London, reminded me of a scene in Pabst’s Pandora’s Box.
FL: You know, all the shots were made on the lot of 20th Century Fox. There was a lake, and when they follow him with the dogs, that was made in it, but otherwise the valley where he creeps up on George Sanders, it was made in the studio.
LC: How about the opening—that shot that looks at his muddy footprints and leads up to him on the cliff with the rifle?
FL: Built in the studio.
MG: Did you allow your actors to improvise?
FL: No. No improvisation. I change something when an actor comes and says “I cannot speak this line,” but I don’t change the meaning of the line. I don’t like what many directors do—to play the part for an actor. You know, many directors say “Look, I have no time to explain it to you, for Christ’s sake.” I don’t want to have 25 little Fritz Langs running around on the screen.
MG: Why did you use Sylvia Sidney in your first three American films?
FL: When you work the first time with an actor or actress there is always a kind of strange relationship. For example, the girl has to step on a ladder and jump down. So you go to the actress and say ‘Look, Miss so-and-so, I apologize, but when do you have your tender days?’ She says “Why?” I say: ‘There is a scene where you have to jump down from a ladder and I don’t want you, when you don’t feel well, that you must do such a thing.’ So she tells it to me, and there is immediately a relationship between director and actor which is a kind of intimacy. Nothing personal, but a professional intimacy. And then you start to talk with her. You just have a feeling. You make a hand move and you know exactly.
LC: Which actors did you find the most sympathetic?
FL: Darling, you cannot ask me if I think “How is this director?” or “How is this actor?” I think this is very unfair. Neither if the European actors are better than the Americans or if the European actresses are more sexy.
MG: How do you see the difference between action and violence in film?
FL: Do you remember in M once the child is killed? She was playing with a ball and then he buys her a balloon. Now, we see just a bush and then the ball rolls out and comes to a standstill. Immediately we know that the girl is dead and then we see the balloon flying away. This is action, in a certain way. It is not violence.
At the time when I did M, I had to show one thing—how a murderer rapes a child, right? Let us say he slits her up. Fine. Aside from the fact that it is very horrible to look at, and very tactless, it is only one way to show it and many people would look away. But if you don’t show it—if you just let the audience know what happened—then every single man and woman can imagine the most horrible things, correct? And then they help me. I don’t show any violence and I don’t have to show them the horrible thing of how a child has been raped.
MG: In The Big Heat, when Gloria Grahame gets hot coffee in her face, it’s off-screen.
FL: I made it so the water was really boiling, clouds of steam coming out. There is violence in that, but it was the violence
of the evil people. I always thought that I never showed violence, which is wrong. Have you seen the fight in Cloak and Dagger? This fight is violent. I was very proud. Gary Cooper, who usually never made a fight—his double made the fights—he made this fight. I am, let me call myself, a liberal, which is not very correct, but let me call me that; and I hate fascists, and this was the fight of a decent man against a fascist. So, seemingly, my hatred got the better hand of me.
LC: Do you think violence is a growing trend in America?
FL: When I came to this country, there were not so many murders and not so much shooting. The average American is violent. I am very unhappy today with what’s going on in the United States. I can’t understand, with the best of my intelligence, how anyone can be for the war. And you know what I don’t understand? That everyone talks only about the 56,000 Americans that have been killed. What about the 100,000 Vietnamese? What do we have to do over there? We have an undeclared war. First we see some people come and bomb and then they catch someone. They are mercenaries.
They are not prisoners of war because there is no war. Congress has not declared a war. It depresses me very, very much. I am very unhappy with what’s going on.
LC: Do you have hope in American youth and the various youth movements?
FL: Yeah. One hundred percent.